It occurred to me the other day, as I climbed into Ms. K's new Toyota Sienna to take it for a spin, that I haven't reviewed a minivan in at least half a decade, and I haven't been inside one in years. The last time time I was up-close-and-personal with such a personnel transporter was when Ms. D and I still lived in Manhattan.
Our 400-square-foot apartment couldn't hold anywhere near all of our stuff, so the bulk of it was packed in a 10x10x10 storage unit on the west side of town on the outskirts of Soho down near the Lincoln Tunnel. Because we didn't have a car with us, any trips to the storage unit to switch out stuff would require a rental if we couldn't fit in a cab. That worked great, because we'd also planned a weekend get away to Woodstock, which is a few hours drive up the Hudson River and back in the woods a bit.
I'd actually signed up for a wagon—like the Ford Escort wagons they had back then—but the rental car company handed me the keys to a powder-blue Ford Windstar. While it was more than capable for our furniture-swapping jaunt, once it hit the open road and those twisty New England "parkway" lanes, it soon earned itself an appropriate nickname—The Beluga Whale. The nickname was partly to deflect any self-consciousness we felt with just of the two of us and our whale in granola-crunchin' Woodstock, N.Y. Our other tactic was to park as close to Lexus SUVs whenever the opportunity presented itself.
To this day, Ms. D entones "Beeeellloooooga!" anytime she sees a light-colored minivan hulking down the road.
The time before that, a friend of mine had showed up at my writerly office to help me move from my desks and chairs back to a home office, after we had secured larger digs with an extra bedroom and a nice view. After cramming pretty much everything and the power strips in his minivan—from which he'd removed the seats—I was duly impressed.
It was with this mental minivan baggage that I climbed into the Sienna and started it up.
My favorite thing about minvans is the seating position—I love the wide-open vistas of a large windshield and the requisite captain's chairs and creature comforts. In this respect, the Sienna doesn't disappoint, with a comfy armrest and plenty of room. The driving position is good, although the Sienna's shifter, in a styling cue that's similar in some respects to the Matrix sportwagon, is located on the dash below the radio and AC controls. It doesn't take much getting used it, but it doesn't feel quite natural to rest your palm on the shift lever.
As with most Toyotas, the interior is functional and forgettable—I don't remember much of anything about the gauges or controls, except they seem to be in all the expected places. Where Toyota has spent a good deal of time is on the seat configurations, including a fold-flat rear third seat that offers flexible cargo space, as well as a 60/40 split second-row bench that is a stand out in its class. Plus, the Sienna is available in an 8-passenger configuration, which is one more than its close competitors can boast. Add in plenty of cubbies and a reported 14 cupholders—not to mention the requisite optional DVD player—and you've got the makings of a portable pizza party, complete with nearly the entire soccer team.
The Sienna gets good props from the press—Edmunds calls it their Most Wanted Minivan of 2004, noting that it offers more power options (including both sliding doors), roll-down passenger windows, power outlets, available three-zone climate control and adaptive cruise control. That puts it second to the local-yokel Nissan Quest, which gets edged out partly for being too expensive and partly for being a touch too creative in the design department.
The Sienna has good, modern lines with out-of-control headlights; again it reminds me of a Matrix where the designers, as Ms. D is wont to say, "blew on the tailpipe"to make it puffier. It's huge and heavy, but offers total cargo capacity of 149 cubic feet and EPA gas mileage of 19 mpg city and 27 mpg highway, which compares extremely favorably to SUVs that offer similar passenger capacity. And while I wouldn't take it bouldering if I were you, the Sienna offers an AWD model for additional traction in weather.
This isn't the sort of "mini" that Ms. D is likely to want us to get, and since we don't have an entourage to carry around with us, it seems like the need is somewhat distant. But for what it's supposed to do, the Sienna offers good looks, comfort and a comfortable base price for a 7-person ($23,495) or 8-person ($24,115) hauler.
And it's the perfect car to borrow from friends in a pinch for a trip to your storage unit—or, if you've got some snacks and a car adapter for your iPod…how about Woodstock?